The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have just announced the launch of their ongoing ‘Hidden Killer’ campaign, in which they will be working with asbestos training providers to promote and provide a total of 4,000 hours of free asbestos awareness training places for construction trade workers across the UK, from 3rd October to 25th November 2011.  The  number of asbestos-related deaths, which still occur each year is estimated to be 4,000.

Court cases which highlight the lack of asbestos awareness by building firms to the dangers of asbestos hidden in the fabric of many private dwellings and public buildings have continued to be frequently reported in the press. The legacy of Britain’s past industrial use of the deadly asbestos mineral as a low-cost heat insulator and fire retardant in many types of building materials still claims the lives of around 20 tradesmen each year.

According to the HSE, it has been estimated that around a half a million buildings still contain chrysotile white asbestos. Considered less toxic than other types of asbestos material banned in 1985, chrysotile continued to be used in insulating boards, ceiling and wall coatings, cement products, roof / window soffits and other applications in buildings constructed or renovated up until the 1980s until a ban on white asbestos came into force in 1992. However, Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB) was still in use until a complete ban was introduced by the Control of Asbestos Regulations, 1999.

It has been often assumed that the dangers of exposure to asbestos no longer apply in today’s post industrial environments or are low risk. Too often, there is little knowledge of how to recognise asbestos material when discovered or how to properly deal with its’ containment and disposal. Since the late 1960s, around 40,000 deaths in the UK were caused by asbestosis diseases or mesothelioma, an aggressive incurable cancer.

The history of asbestos exposure, which affected many thousands of industrial workers employed in the manufacturing, engineering and shipbuilding industries throughout much of the twentieth century, is well known. Once breathed in, the fibres became permanently lodged within the lining cavity of the lungs and only after an unusually long gestation period of between 15 – 50 years, the first signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms began to appear. Often diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease, most patients die within 4 to 18 months.

However, asbestos exposure has continued to be a risk today for joiners, electricians, plumbers, plasterers, painters and decorators, and many other construction trades working in premises which still contain white asbestos. The HSE claim more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year. In 2008, death from mesothelioma reached 2,249, a rise of three per cent on 2007. It is forecast that 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year by 2015 and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.

Often found to be worn and friable (highly fragile state of disintegration), any attempt to handle will release the asbestos fibre dust into the surrounding atmosphere and needs to dealt with by fully trained personnel. The new initiative from HSE continues their long-term objective to raise awareness and impart the vital knowledge needed by tradesmen so they know exactly what to do and how to protect themselves and others when encountering asbestos.

Any training provider who pledges and delivers free hours of training will have to ensure that the tradesperson sitting the course completes an evaluation form.